Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Albert Goldbarth’s poems are spun from an encyclopedic mind that engages odd snippets of information as well as the whole of scientific treatises. The “larger” issues have been Goldbarth’s themes, but he treats them in unique, even spectacular ways. Funny, ironic, bitter, hilarious, irreverent, sexy, serious—this list of adjectives could apply to almost every one of his poems. “A History of Civilization” is a relatively early poem. It is less experimental, more traditional, than Goldbarth’s later poems. Yet through its title and its complex structure, it predicts the poet who went on to write books with such titles as Heaven and Earth: A Cosmology (1991) and Across the Layers: Poems Old and New (1993) and to win the National Book Critics Circle Award. Goldbarth’s style developed into one of excess—excessively long sentences packed with an excess of fact, speculation, memory, data of all kinds. Images and incidents fuse, break apart, then connect again. Everything is part of a larger chaos that, in the end, belongs to an even larger order.

Whether it is like the short journey of the dust mote or the more dramatic shifting of tectonic plates, the life of any individual is insignificant when measured against eternity. History, however, creates a context and reveals significance. “A History of Civilization” peels back layers of remembered time to uncover the basic values of America, to shine the spotlight briefly on...

(The entire section is 485 words.)